March 1, 2013

Part II: Hyde Park's high rent fuels local CPS under-enrollment

Part I of this investigation can be found here.

When Chicago Public Schools (CPS) issued a list of 330 schools with ailing enrollments last December, marking them as early candidates for a coming sweep of cost-saving closures and consolidations, parents and teachers held their breath.

Four Hyde Park schools made that list.

Kozminski Community Academy at East 54th Street and South Ingleside Avenue, Canter Leadership Academy at East 49th Street and South Blackstone Avenue, Reavis Elementary at East 50th Street and South Drexel Avenue, and Ray Elementary at East 57th Street and South Kimbark Avenue, all had attendance rates that slipped below—in some cases well below—the threshold CPS had set for acceptable enrollment.

The city’s decade-long population decline has long been implicated in under-enrollment, with its particular toll on school-age children and families.

But the neighborhood’s own contribution to the trend may be fueled particularly by the increasingly burdensome cost of living here, according to a study published last month of Hyde Park’s rental housing stock.

And the schools appear to be feeling the effect.

Ray made it off the short list of 129 schools CPS released February 19, but Kozminski, Canter, and Reavis did not, and are still on shaky ground.

“Every year, the numbers are declining,” said Lauren Sommerfeld, a language arts teacher at Kozminski who remembers that when she arrived at the K–8 school five years ago, enrollment was over 500 for a capacity of 780. Now, it’s 372.

Although not all Kozminski families rent, 86 percent are low-income, which means that most probably do.

One of those people used to be Maxwell Okwuedei, Sr., a one-time resident who put all his four children through Hyde Park schools but opted to leave the neighborhood in 2009. He still has a daughter at Kozminski in the fifth grade.

For 10 years, Okwuedei lived on Drexel Boulevard, first in a studio on 46th Street when he moved here from Nigeria and then in a two-bedroom on 50th once his family followed in 2003. Around that time, he was paying $450 a month for his studio and $650 for the two-bedroom. Prices soon rose, however.

“The time I came here in 1999, the rent was reasonable, but between the period 2005 to 2009, there was some drastic change,” he said. By the time he left, he was paying $900 a month.

On his salary with United Parcel Service, he calculated that he could afford a house of his own in another neighborhood for little more than what he was already paying in rent. Anticipating another hike, he leapt for it.

“If I have to pay above $900, why don’t I add $200 or $300 and get a house?” he recalls thinking. He now lives in a three-bedroom house he owns in Chatham and drives his daughter to Kozminski after his night-shift at a UPS office downtown.

According to the findings in the Coalition for Equitable Community Development (CECD) study, it is unlikely that Okwuedei is the only Kozminski parent to have left the neighborhood.

“At every grade level, there have been smart, successful students [who] score highly on the ISAT, and they’re leaving,” said Sommerfeld.

Sommerfeld says it is possible that parents pulled their kids out during a recent administrative overhaul, after the school landed on probation in 2009.

But Allen Simpson, Kozminski’s dean of students, keeps an ear to the ground in the community. He says he has noticed some of the strain.

“We’ve had a lot of people saying they’re under a lot of stress when it comes to maintaining stability in Hyde Park,” he said. “Some of them don’t have all the answers as to where they would go.”

Many are expecting consolidation: At a community hearing last Tuesday with CPS officials to discuss the closures, the understanding was that nearby Reavis would be moved into Kozminski’s larger facility, according to Assistant Principal Michelle Brumfield.

And consolidation threatens to undo Kozminski’s progress since 2009—when discipline was slack and programming was thin. Residents complained of property damage in the street, according to Brumfield, and police often settled disputes between students.

“The kids were basically running the school,” Sommerfeld said.

An administrative reshuffling landed Kozminski with current Principal Myron Harris and Brumfield, both in their second year now, who have created programs to improve student behavior and test-taking. Scores have been climbing, and the atmosphere seems to have improved.

But if CPS injects another body of students into Kozminski, it may sidetrack the school’s modest gains in stability. Many suspect that Kozminski’s renewed sense of order has followed partly from its gradual disengagement from No Child Left Behind, by which students from around the city were bussed in.

Charles Beavers, a Hyde Park resident who is in his first year at Kozminski as a special education instructor, is sure he would like to stay, but he is aware of how fragile progress can be.

“The ship is turning around,” he said. “[But] it’s still a ship, and it takes turning.”